Articles Posted in Legal Ethics

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The Haegers sued Goodyear, alleging that the failure of a Goodyear G159 tire caused their motorhome to swerve and flip over. After years of contentious discovery, marked by Goodyear’s slow response to repeated requests for internal G159 test results, the parties settled. Months later, the Haegers’ lawyer learned that, in another lawsuit involving the G159, Goodyear had disclosed test results indicating that the tire got unusually hot at highway speeds. Goodyear conceded withholding the information. The district court exercised its inherent power to sanction bad-faith behavior to award the Haegers $2.7 million—their legal fees and costs since the moment, early in the litigation, of Goodyear’s first dishonest discovery response. The court held that in cases of egregious behavior, a court can award all attorney’s fees incurred in a case, without any need to find a causal link between the expenses and the sanctionable conduct. The court made a contingent award of $2 million, to take effect if the Ninth Circuit reversed the larger award, deducting fees related to other defendants and to proving medical damages. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the $2.7 million award. The Supreme Court reversed. When a federal court exercises its inherent authority to sanction bad-faith conduct by ordering a litigant to pay the other side’s legal fees, the award is limited to fees that the innocent party would not have incurred but for the bad faith. The sanction must be compensatory, not punitive. The Haegers did not show that this litigation would have settled as soon as Goodyear divulged the heat-test results and cannot demonstrate that Goodyear’s non-disclosure so permeated the suit as to make that misconduct a but-for cause of every subsequent legal expense. View "Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. v. Haeger" on Justia Law

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A Nevada jury convicted Rippo of first-degree murder and other offenses and sentenced him to death. During his trial, Rippo received information that the judge was the target of a federal bribery probe, and he surmised that the Clark County District Attorney’s Office, which was prosecuting him, was playing a role in that investigation. Rippo unsuccessfully moved for the judge’s disqualification. After that judge’s indictment on federal charges a different judge denied Rippo’s motion for a new trial. The Nevada Supreme Court affirmed, reasoning that Rippo had not introduced evidence that state authorities were involved in the federal investigation. State courts denied post-conviction relief, reasoning that Rippo was not entitled to discovery or an evidentiary hearing because his allegations “d[id] not support the assertion that the trial judge was actually biased.” The Supreme Court vacated the Nevada Supreme Court’s judgment, stating that due process may sometimes demand recusal even when a judge “ ‘ha[s] no actual bias.’ Recusal is required when, objectively speaking, “the probability of actual bias on the part of the judge or decision-maker is too high to be constitutionally tolerable.” View "Rippo v. Baker" on Justia Law

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Kirtsaeng bought low-cost foreign edition textbooks in Thailand and resold them to students in the U.S. In 2013 the Supreme Court held that Kirtsaeng could invoke the Copyright Act’s “first-sale doctrine,” 17 U.S.C. 109(a), as a defense to the publisher's copyright infringement claim. Kirtsaeng then sought more than $2 million in attorney’s fees from the publisher under the Act’s fee-shifting provision. The Second Circuit affirmed denial of Kirtsaeng’s application, reasoning that Wiley had taken reasonable positions during litigation. A unanimous Supreme Court vacated. When deciding whether to award attorney’s fees under 17 U.S.C. 505, a court should give substantial weight to the objective reasonableness of the losing party’s position, while still taking into account all other relevant circumstances. Precedent has identified several non-exclusive​ factors for courts to consider, e.g., frivolousness, motivation, objective unreasonableness, and the need in particular circumstances to advance considerations of compensation and deterrence. Putting substantial weight on the reasonableness of a losing party’s position is consistent with the objectives of the Copyright Act, but courts must take into account a range of considerations beyond the reasonableness of litigating positions. Because the district court “may not have understood the full scope of its discretion,” the Court remanded for consideration of other relevant factors. View "Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc." on Justia Law

Posted in: Copyright, Legal Ethics

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Williams was convicted of a 1984 murder and sentenced to death. Philadelphia District Attorney Castille approved a request to seek the death penalty. Williams’s conviction and sentence were upheld on direct appeal, state post-conviction review, and federal habeas review. In 2012, Williams filed a successive petition under Pennsylvania’s Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA), arguing that the prosecutor had obtained false testimony from his codefendant and suppressed exculpatory evidence. Finding that the prosecutor had committed Brady violations, the court stayed Williams’s execution. The Commonwealth asked the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, whose chief justice was former District Attorney Castille, to vacate the stay. Without explanation, Castille denied Williams’s motion for recusal and request for referral to the full court; Castille joined an opinion vacating PCRA relief and reinstating Williams’s death sentence. Two weeks later, Castille retired. The U.S. Supreme Court vacated, holding that Castille’s participation violated the Due Process Clause. There is an impermissible risk of actual bias when a judge earlier had significant, personal involvement as a prosecutor in a critical decision regarding the defendant’s case. No attorney is more integral to the accusatory process than a prosecutor who participates in a major adversary decision; the decision to pursue the death penalty is a critical choice. Neither the involvement of multiple actors nor the passage of time relieves the former prosecutor of the duty to withdraw. An unconstitutional failure to recuse constitutes structural error, “not amenable” to harmless-error review, regardless of whether the judge’s vote was dispositive. The Court noted that many jurisdictions, including Pennsylvania, have statutes and professional codes that already require recusal under these circumstances. View "Williams v. Pennsylvania" on Justia Law

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CRST trucking company requires its drivers to graduate from its training program before becoming certified drivers. In 2005, new driver Starke filed an EEOC charge, alleging that she was sexually harassed by male trainers during her training (42 U.S.C. 2000e–5(b)).The Commission ultimately informed CRST that it had found reasonable cause to believe that CRST subjected Starke and “a class of employees and prospective employees to sexual harassment.” In 2007, having determined that conciliation had failed, the Commission filed suit. During discovery, the Commission identified over 250 allegedly aggrieved women. The district court dismissed, held that CRST was a prevailing party, and awarded the company over $4 million in fees. The Eighth Circuit reversed the dismissal of two claims and vacated the award. On remand, the Commission settled Starke’s claim and withdrew the other. The district court again awarded more than $4 million, finding that CRST had prevailed on more than 150 claims because of the Commission’s failure to satisfy pre-suit requirements. The Eighth Circuit reversed, stating that dismissal was not a ruling on the merits. A unanimous Supreme Court vacated. A favorable ruling on the merits is not a necessary predicate to find that a defendant is a prevailing party. A plaintiff seeks a material alteration in the legal relationship between the parties; a defendant seeks to prevent that alteration, and that objective is fulfilled whenever the plaintiff ’s challenge is rebuffed, irrespective of the precise reason for the decision. Title VII’s fee-shifting statute allows prevailing defendants to recover whenever the plaintiff ’s “claim was frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless.” Congress must have intended that a defendant could recover fees expended in such litigation when the case is resolved in the defendant’s favor, whether on the merits or not. View "CRST Van Expedited, Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Comm'n" on Justia Law

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The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act prohibits “abusive debt collection practices,” 15 U.S.C. 1692(a)–(d), barring “false, deceptive, or misleading representation[s].” The definition of “debt collectors,” excludes “any officer . . . of . . . any State to the extent that collecting . . . any debt is in the performance of his official duties.” Under Ohio law, overdue debts owed to state-owned agencies and instrumentalities are certified to the State’s Attorney General, who may appoint, as independent contractors, private attorneys, as “special counsel” to act on the Attorney General’s behalf. Special counsel must use the Attorney General’s letterhead in communicating with debtors. Attorneys appointed as special counsel, sent debt collection letters on the Attorney General’s letterhead to debtors, with signature blocks containing the name and address of the signatory as well as the designation “special” or “outside” counsel to the Attorney General. Each letter identified the sender as a debt collector seeking payment for debts to a state institution. Debtors filed a putative class action, alleging violation of FDCPA. The district court granted defendants summary judgment. The Sixth Circuit vacated, concluding that special counsel, as independent contractors, are not entitled to the FDCPA’s state-officer exemption. The Supreme Court reversed. Even if special counsel are not “state officers” under the Act, their use of the Attorney General’s letterhead does not violate Section 1692e. The letterhead identifies the principal—Ohio’s Attorney General—and the signature block names the agent—a private lawyer. A debtor’s impression that a letter from special counsel is a letter from the Attorney General’s Office is “scarcely inaccurate.” View "Sheriff v. Gillie" on Justia Law

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Under federal law, a court has discretion to “allow the prevailing party, other than the United States, a reasonable attorney’s fee” in a civil rights lawsuit filed under 42 U.S.C. 1983 or 42 U.S.C. 1988. The Supreme Court has interpreted section 1988 to permit a prevailing defendant to recover fees only if “the plaintiff ’s action was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation.” The Idaho Supreme Court concluded that it was not bound by that interpretation and awarded attorney’s fees under section 1988 to a prevailing defendant without first determining that “the plaintiff ’s action was frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation.” The fee award rested solely on that court's interpretation of federal law; the court explicitly refused to award fees under state law. The Supreme Court reversed. Section 1988 is a federal statute; once the Supreme Court has spoken, it is the duty of other courts to respect that understanding of the governing rule of law. If state courts were permitted to disregard the Court’s rulings on federal law, “the laws, the treaties, and the constitution of the United States would be different in different states, and might, perhaps, never have precisely the same construction, obligation, or efficacy, in any two states." View "James v. Boise" on Justia Law

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Petitioners, a bipartisan group of citizens, requested that a three-judge court be convened to consider their claim that Maryland’s 2011 congressional redistricting plan burdens their First Amendment right of political association. The district court dismissed the action, concluding that no relief could be granted. The Fourth Circuit affirmed. The Court held that 28 U.S.C. 2284 entitles petitioners to make their case before a three-judge court because, under section 2284(a), the present suit is indisputably an action challenging the constitutionality of the apportionment of congressional districts. The Court further held that the subsequent provision of section 2284(b)(1), that the district judge shall commence the process for appointment of a three-judge panel “unless he determines that three judges are not required,” should be read not as a grant of discretion to the district judge to ignore section 2284(a), but as a compatible administrative detail. The Court went on to say that this conclusion is bolstered by section 2284(b)(3)’s explicit command that “[a] single judge shall not . . . enter judgment on the merits.” Finally, the Court held that respondents' alternative argument, that the District Judge should have dismissed petitioners' claim as "constitutionally insubstantial" under Goosby v. Osser, is unpersuasive. Accordingly, the Court reversed and remanded. View "Shapiro v. McManus" on Justia Law

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ASARCO hired the law firms to assist it in carrying out its duties as a Chapter 11 debtor in possession, 11 U.S.C. 327(a). When ASARCO emerged from bankruptcy, the law firms filed fee applications requesting fees under section 330(a)(1), which permits bankruptcy courts to “award . . . reasonable compensation for actual, necessary services rendered by” professionals. The Bankruptcy Court rejected ASARCO’s objections and awarded fees for time spent defending the applications. The district court held that the firms could be awarded fees for defending their fee applications. The Fifth Circuit reversed. The Supreme Court affirmed. Section330(a)(1) does not permit bankruptcy courts to award fees to section 327(a) professionals for defending fee applications. The American Rule provides the basic point of reference for attorney’s fees: Each litigant pays his own attorney’s fees, win or lose, unless a statute or contract provides otherwise. Congress did not depart from the American Rule in section 330(a)(1) for fee-defense litigation. The phrase “reasonable compensation for services rendered” necessarily implies “loyal and disinterested service in the interest of” a client, Time spent litigating a fee application against the bankruptcy estate’s administrator cannot be fairly described as “labor performed for”—let alone “disinterested service to”—that administrator. Requiring bankruptcy attorneys to bear the costs of their fee-defense litigation under section 330(a)(1) creates no disincentive to bankruptcy practice. View "Baker Botts L.L.P. v. ASARCO LLC" on Justia Law

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Florida voters elect judges. The Florida Supreme Court adopted Canon 7C(1) of its Code of Judicial Conduct, stating that judicial candidates “shall not personally solicit campaign funds . . . but may establish committees of responsible persons” to raise money for election campaigns. Yulee mailed and posted online a letter soliciting financial contributions to her campaign for judicial office. The Florida Bar disciplined her for violating a Bar Rule requiring candidates to comply with Canon 7C(1). The Florida Supreme Court upheld the sanction against a First Amendment challenge. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed. Florida’s interest in preserving public confidence in the integrity of its judiciary is compelling.. Unlike the legislature or the executive, the judiciary “has no influence over either the sword or the purse,” so its authority largely depends on the public’s willingness to respect its decisions. Canon 7C(1) raises no fatal underinclusivity concerns. The solicitation ban aims squarely at the conduct most likely to undermine public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary: it is not riddled with exceptions. Allowing a candidate to use a committee and to write thank you notes reflect Florida’s effort to respect the First Amendment interests of candidates and contributors. Canon 7C(1) is not overinclusive It allows judicial candidates to discuss any issue with any person at any time; to write letters, give speeches, and put up billboards; to contact potential supporters in person, on the phone, or online; and to promote their campaigns through the media. Though they cannot ask for money, they can direct their campaign committees to do so. Florida has reasonably determined that personal appeals for money by a judicial candidate inherently create an appearance of impropriety. Canon 7C(1) must be narrowly tailored, not “perfectly tailored” to address that concern. View "Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar" on Justia Law